Sometimes its very improbability is what makes a story worth telling. Something that at first sounds like a fairy tale, turns out to be true. I’m about to tell you one such story, and like so many modern tales it began with an email.
For years I have been receiving emails about the interpreting profession: European students seeking advice, South American trainees keen to learn about our profession, soldiers in Afghanistan who need guidance on working with interpreters, interpreters in conflict zones requiring help and information – a wide range of issues centred around conference interpretation. Last spring, I received an email that I first thought was a hoax. In it the official Spanish interpreter of His Holiness the Dalai Lama was writing to me for advice and help in improving her interpreting skills. I simply could not picture a Buddhist nun in her monastery watching YouTube videos about conference interpreting, but as I am a firm believer in doing my homework before I decide, I replied to the message because it was so outlandishly intriguing that I could not simply ignore it. And it was all genuine.
Marta, or Tenzin Dolkar, is a nun originally from Spain who has spent nearly thirteen years in Dharamsala studying Buddhist philosophy. She is a Spanish-speaker with fluent Tibetan and in-depth knowledge of Buddhism and has consequently been appointed the official interpreter into Spanish of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. The challenge she faces – one we can all readily understand – is to provide interpretation worthy of His Holiness, despite lacking formal training as an interpreter and being unable to take time out from her studies of Buddhist philosophy to undergo training – plus the fact that even a trained interpreter would feel tested to start working at such an exalted level. She therefore decided to write to me, although it must have felt like putting a message in a bottle and throwing it into the sea.
But her message arrived. After several conversations and email exchanges we concluded that as she could not take time out to attend an EMCI course at a European university, we had to come up with a creative solution, and my commitment to helping her became a top priority. We looked at various options before deciding to combine regular private classes online with intensive face-to-face coaching. I chose María Méndez, a former student of mine, an AIIC precandidate with EU accreditation to work with me – I could not make a regular commitment – as I thought her the perfect partner for team teaching. María quickly grasped that her wired former teacher needed help so we both began instructing Marta in the techniques of consecutive and simultaneous interpretation, stressing the importance of mother tongue, knowledge of passive languages, of communication. We also worked on helping her cope more effectively with stress and on developing professional reflexes.
You do not learn to interpret from one day to the next and there are challenges aplenty in this profession, so this is a living, dynamic project that has helped Marta improve her performance by enhancing accuracy and communication skills, which has in turn given her more confidence in her own performance and reduced her stress – a virtuous circle.
In December we kept the second part of our agreement, which was to visit Marta while His Holiness the Dalai Lama was teaching at the Mungod Tibetan refugee camp in Karnataka, India. This gave us an opportunity to experience her working conditions whilst continuing daily classes with her. The trip to Mungod allowed us to witness first-hand how the Buddhist community lives and was one of the great experiences of my life. Seeing the monks and nuns living their religion, praying, meditating, studying, eating and sharing – all of it was truly enlightening for me. At the risk of sounding trite, we came to see “less is more” as an achievable and successful way to live. These people are happy.
Seeing Marta in the throng of the faithful, monks, nuns, chants, security, media, acoustic problems, documents that arrive or don’t, opened my eyes to a way of working that was completely new to me. I have learned a great deal from seeing the anonymous, hard work of these interpreters who are motivated by altruism, faith and conviction. It is nothing short of admirable.
I may have helped Marta with her interpreting performance and put her in touch with the wider interpreting community, but she taught me a great deal more. That, however, is a very personal story just for me.